John Deere

The American inventor and manufacturer John Deere (1804-1886) was one of the first to design agricultural tools and machines to meet the specific needs of midwestern farmers.

John Deere was born in 1804 in modest circumstances in Rutland, Vt., the third son of William Rinold and Sarah Yates Deere. After receiving the limited education available to a country boy, Deere was apprenticed at 17 to a blacksmith in Middleburn, Vt. He completed his apprenticeship in 4 years and became a master craftsman.

In 1836 Deere left Vermont for Grand Detour, Ill., where he found ready employment in his trade. He prospered, for the farmers kept him fully occupied supplying their customary needs. They also presented him with an unusual problem posed by the local soil. The soil of Illinois and other prairie areas was not only difficult to plow because of its thick sod covering but also tended to clog the moldboards of plows. Deere tried covering the moldboard and cutting a plowshare from salvaged steel. Steel surfaces tended to shed the thick soil and were burnished by the abrasive action of the soil. Deere's new plows, introduced in 1839, sold readily, and within a decade the production of plows by Deere and his new associate, Leonard Andrus, exceeded 1,000 per year. Deere parted company with his partners to move to Moline, Ill., which was better situated for a market, transportation, and raw materials.

Repeated experiments produced an excellent moldboard and demonstrated that further improvements in the plow were dependent on using better-quality steel. Deere imported such steel from an English firm until a Pittsburgh firm cast the first plow steel in the United States for him. Deere's production of plows soared to 10,000 by 1857 as agriculture in the Midwest grew to meet the unprecedented demands of the growing home and export market.

The business was incorporated in 1868 with Deere and his son, Charles, in the executive positions. During the Civil War the company prospered as it diversified its output to include wagons, carriages, and a full line of agricultural equipment. It also adopted modern administrative practices and built an efficient sales, distribution, and service organization which reached into all parts of America. Deere remained active in the management of the company until his fatal illness in 1886. He was succeeded by his son.

John Deere married twice. His first wife, Demarius Lamb, died in 1865. Two years later he married her younger sister, Lucinda Lamb.

Further Reading on John Deere

Full-length studies of Deere are Neil M. Clark, John Deere: He Gave to the World the Steel Plow (1937), and Darragh Aldrich, The Story of John Deere: A Saga of American Industry (1942). See also Stewart H. Holbrook, Machines of Plenty: Pioneering in American Agriculture (1955), and Wayne D. Rasmussen, Readings in the History of American Agriculture (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Broehl, Wayne G., John Deere's company: a history of Deere & Company and its times, New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

Collins, David R., Pioneer plowmaker: a story about John Deere, Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1990.

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